Local farm shows started out as single day-long show. Show participation meant great ribbons, prizes from the Dollar Store, and some scary moments learning those cross rails. My daughter was tense during this time when we were trying to figure out the registration process — we ended up leaving a blank check to get a number- — and began acquiring the clothes and tack we needed from our used tack store. I remember hemming up a jacket to make it fit, learning about hair nets, and working with a horse tied to a trailer for a long day.
We were doing pretty well, and devoting one day each month to a show wasn’t overwhelming. My daughter became interested in qualifying for year-end ribbons, however, and that meant joining the local state association. That meant we were now showing a full season with a final horse show in the fall at a “real” facility instead of a farm ring. I have tapes of this first final show — it looks terribly exciting!Unfortunately, local shows do not necessarily bring out the best in trainers, who seem to spend more time arguing than modeling sportsman-like behavior. Judging is pretty inconsistent at these shows, and the level of drama is intense between girls and their parents who got up too early and spent an entire day in the sun.
My daughter took the shows very seriously, watched her points, and really wanted to win that new cooler, halter or whatever the prize was. I tried to keep her focus off the points and make the focus about showing and riding instead. Usually, this fell on deaf ears, as my 13 year-old’s world began to revolve around these weekend shows. For me, an aging mom who was getting up at 4:
30 am and putting in a day’s worth of intense physical labor, the emotional drama seemed just too great an investment on many days.
One day my daughter began discussing the circuit. Up until this point we had been one of many mother-daughter spectators who watched A Shows at the Olympic Horse Park. The shows looked to be fun. We had a retired broodmare that had shown at nationals, and Meg started talking about how she wanted to qualify some day for these shows. I did my research and was truly shocked at the idea of writing thousand-dollar checks for weekend shows. No way….this was not for us.
At about the same time, my daughter had been diagnosed with dyslexia and several other learning disabilities. The school wanted her to find something she was good at to help her build her confidence and self-esteem. In her mind that “thing” was horses and showing. She already had a wall full of ribbons, but she wanted more experience at a higher level. She began dreaming of qualifying for a national horse show, and this would set us on a path that would influence her choices throughout high school and her first year of college.
For us, it meant a new trainer, upgraded horses, new and more expensive tack, and a farm with a riding arena for practice. We started down a pathway that brought many new experiences, new focuses and time commitment that involved the whole family, and a way of life that brought both positive and negative experiences.
Our first task was to find a trainer. We needed someone who did the circuit, had the skills and experience we needed, worked near where we live, and was someone who could work with a kid with learning disabilities. We found a young woman in our area that had the demeanor and attitude that I thought would work with my daughter. We signed on with a lesson program and an evaluation of our existing horses. We passed but the horses flunked, so I then had to sell two horses to raise the money to buy another.
Horse shopping became our next task. At the same time, I learned that our tack would not make it on the circuit, so I became concerned with the affordability of this hobby, as dollar signs continued to mount and the budget continued to grow. I had the difficult job of cost control and making sure that this new hobby would fit our budget. Horse shopping is always an interesting experience — all kinds of trainers, brokers, and sales barn agents come out of the woodwork to show you their sale horses. We tried many horses at shows, at people’s barns, and diligently read all the ads. In the end, price and afford ability became the real issue. We found and purchased a nice but very green horse who needed training and experience.
My husband now walks through our barn and points out what seems like thousands of dollars of tack, blankets, trunks, saddles, grooming supplies, protective boots and all accessories used on the circuit. I remember the first GPA helmet or shadbelly because the price tag gave me heart burn. It took some scrimping and saving and budgeting to work it into our family budget. I learned to become really adept at buying on eBay, to look for annual tack store sales, and to set a show season budget so we could add what we needed without breaking the bank.
Grooms were not an option in our budget, so I learned to drive a truck and trailer, load and unload for a show, put up show curtains, neatly store way too much stuff in an aisle, and wash and brush a horse. I can give shots, talk about performance feed and supplements, look for splints and stocked-up legs, water and feed horses, clean a stall, and stand for hours at the ring holding a horse. I can pack and unpack a trailer, organize a stall tack room, and remember details like clean wraps and saddle pads.
The shows became a twice-a-month affair with travel to many states. I remember my first trip to Biltmore in North Carolina with all of the tents and the long walk to the show rings. I thought this was the top until I went to Capital Challenge where you could feel the tension and competitive spirit in barns. Capital Challenge was my first experience with an intensely competitive show — the total focus is on the rider and the horse being presented at their best.
West Palm Nationals is an unique experience where the horse set comes out to watch. It’s a mix of a family carnival atmosphere on the grounds combined with a deadly serious competitive show spirit at the rings. People would be decked out in their Sunday finest, leisurely sipping wine or cocktails in the stadium tents as if at Saturday brunch, while I was dirty, anxious, and very quiet. I had gone from spectator to nervous supporter of the competitors.
We made a deliberate decision to go from Locals to the Circuit. I tried to keep a perspective that my daughter wanted to be a horse woman, not a show queen. She had to earn her privileges and the right to show. She had to work hard, practice every day except Monday, endlessly ride, take lessons when others went shopping or to movies, give up many Friday night school parties, and spend more on her show clothes than her school clothes. She learned many lessons: how to compete; that the world is not always fair; having the best horse (aka money) does not mean you will always win; and that practice and hard work can pay off. Only time will tell what kind of an adult she will be. During this time on the circuit, she managed to maintain an “A” average even with her learning issues, and I saw her develop into a confident young woman with a leadership presence that comes from working hard and solving problems, as well as the ability to pick herself up after a tough score and move on. What more can a parent ask for??